Interview as given to CD, a publication based in Chengannur
Her grandfather was Natyacharyan Sri Tripunithura Aravindakasha Menon, and her coveted teacher, the peerless Dr Padma Subramanyam. A promising terpsichorean and danseuse in the making for the South Indian classical and ballet platform, Shalu Menon has been one artist that has chosen to give preference to dance after the completion of her academic studies, even at the cost of a barrage of roles offered to her in both silver and small screens at the time.
Besides Padma Subramaniam, Shalu was deeply fortunate to have Regatta Girija, Chithra Vishveshwaran, Nandancaud Vinayachandran, RLV Pradeep and Venkitesh as her instructors. Shalu was treated with respect and admiration across the world of arts until a series of undesirable happenings cast dark shadows on her otherwise exceptionally glittering dancing career.
Obviously unfazed, the grand daughter of Thripunithura Aravindaksha Menon carries on her odyssey of training young students and looking after the curriculum in Jayakerala School of Performing Arts, a flagship ballet troupe launched in Chenganacherry by her Kendra Sangeetha Nataka Academy fellowship winner grandfather and flagged off by the legendary Mannathu Padmanabhan. She is also doing it ardently following the glorious footsteps of her grandfather who had been instrumental in the troupe’s staging more than fifty ballets since 1959.
Draupadi, the latest performing ballet of Jayakerala succeeds Jayakerala’s much extolled Shakunthalam (2011 – 2012) that had virtually transfixed the aesthetic senses of a galaxy of artists, litterateurs and critics all over the art world. If Shakunthalam was a creation that chiefly emphasised the romance between King Dushyantha and the lovely daughter of a heavenly enchantress, Draupadi predominantly highlights the epic character as a champion of human virtues.
Shalu was all bonheur when Chengannur Diary asked her if she minded picturing before it the cogent facets of the protagonist of her magnum opus. It was refreshing as well, to see her dissecting her Draupadi before the journal with a view to expose the nuances more explicitly than just giving a regulation account that might have sounded nauseatingly trite.
In the recent past, unleashed upon you was hell. Still you hardly drifted off the values of art you had inherited paternally. This indiscrete spirit in you so apparent as regards to art is unequivocally appreciable.
Thank you very much. The feeling of oneness regarding art must have been in me from my birth since having born into a renowned art family. I proudly say that I had indulged in this blessed sector as a child besides having showered with the much desirable patronage of a league of elite from the world of arts. Even throughout bad times, I had resolved not to fail that God-given dignity whatever come in my way.
Draupadi is a character, often found to be emitting a queer halo compared to most other women characters of Indian mythology. Unambiguously instrumental in the decimation of a dynasty. Perhaps, the most scathing criticism of her should be her sarcastic whipping of Suyodhana with her mordant wit and acrid tongue that arguably sparked off the deepest of hatred in him in the Indraprastha incident. Why Draupadi?
I accept it with due respect. But then there is always the contradiction – ‘arguable’. I am one person that would like to take the Indraprastha incident in a lighter vein; in healthy humour. Something which Duryodhana must have found hard to conceive then. Coming to my Draupadi, she is the epitome of rectitude and righteous indignation. A character from my pet household story books fit to be portrayed before the languishing women folk of my country. I wish to project Draupadi predominantly as an icon of determination, which is a quality that my sisters of the land often tend to compromise apparently for the prevalence of order in their lives. Moreover, Draupadi emerged from King Drupada’s Yagagni destined as a prominent activator of the Kaurava destruction. In fact she just was subservient to the supernal designs.
How well would Draupadi fare as a romantic heroine in your ballet?
The term romance often goes synonymous to the name Draupadi. Her passionate love for Arjuna, the man who had won her in the Swayamvara, her loveable nagging of Bhima for numerous trophies including the Kalyanasaugandhikam, her worshipful care for Yudhishtira that becomes apparent when she dutifully bandages his bleeding crown at the court of King Virat after the latter had caused an incision after hitting the Pandava with a dice cube, are instances that avidly tend to qualify the lover in her.
Then one aspect in her otherwise clean love life, standing to many as an undesirable glitch has definitely been her alleged infidelity toward other husbands in the form of a special love package for Arjuna. Is that not forgivable considering even amid all the virtues, Draupadi still had the heart of a young Nalayani who longed for a single perfect inamorata?
She was also the eternal virgin who attained virginity after every morning bath even after being wife to five men. Before her emerging from the ritual flames of Drupada, she was Nalayani, daughter of Damayanthi and Nala, who prayed to Lord Shiva for a husband with all fourteen qualities. Acknowledging her prayers, Shiva admitted that there would be no such man but blessed her instead with five husbands that collectively owned all fourteen qualities. It was also the lord that blessed her with eternal virginity.
Is there space in your ballet for a pious Draupadi?
Of course, I was coming into it. Another scintillating facet of Draupadi’s life was her unfathomable devotion for Lord Krishna. This should also be the most touching part of my ballet. Even if time constraints do not allow me to portray certain instances that stand as testimony to her devotion for Krishna, I rate her dressing a wound inflicted on Krishna during his battle with King Shishupala, with a severed cloth piece of hers and the Lord’s eventual repaying of the debt strand by strand, during her ordeal at the hands of Dushasana at a packed Durbar after Yudhistira had staked and lost her in a game of dice with the Kauravas, as the best.
Presume almost all the facets of the Draupadi of your ballet have been discussed. Is it time for conclusion?
Sure, but not before inviting your attention to another happening depicted in the great epic that states how sympathetic she was towards the genuine mourners of violence even at times of truculence and deceit. Tears shed by her at the loss of Vikarna, a Kaurava prince, in the war vividly substantiate that. During the humiliation of Draupadi at Hasthinapur durbar by Dushasana and Duryodhana Vikarna’s was a lonesome voice so isolated from the rest of his brothers’ when he wailed, “Humiliation of the wife of our brothers was disgraceful and unrighteous and we should never commit that sin”.
Later in the great war that followed destiny brought Vikarna face to face with the powerful Bhima. Despite numerous pleas from Bhima to disengage from the war, Vikarna chose to fight the big man and subsequently died a brave man’s death at the hands of Bhima. Even amidst a fit of rage – longing for the blood of Dushasana to tie her loose hair up with it, mercilessly adhering to the vow taken by her at the time of her humiliation by the tyrant – her gratitude and sympathy for the brave and righteous Vikarna emerged from her eyes in the form of tears of anguish. This should be a much uncelebrated part of Draupadi, so sensitive, so solid yet.